The Consequences of Segregated Faith-based Education in Northern Ireland

As the UK prepares to secede from the European Union, David Mcilveen writes about faith-based education in Belfast—arguably the UK’s most divided city—and from the province that will form the UK’s only land border with the EU.

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be a child growing up in the US Deep South before Civil Rights or South Africa before the fall of apartheid, in a society where the color of one’s skin was the prevailing source of their status and success in life, rather than the vast human potential that lay underneath? If you or I had been born into this perversion of normality and were by accident of birth either the oppressed or oppressor would we have had the courage to raise a voice of dissent? Of course we would all, I’m sure, like to think that we would have been pioneers for equality in this scenario but as Aristotle said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

Teaching both the oppressed and oppressor from the earliest age that racial segregation was acceptable, produced generations of people who in a subtle blend of innocence and ignorance believed it to be true; one of the most effective ways of delivering this outcome was to separate people at that most formative time in their life—childhood. In modern, pluralist, cosmopolitan Western Europe, of course we look at the dark days of the past, whether it be South Africa, The US, or indeed 1930’s Europe, and proudly say: we have learned from the mistakes of the past. Or have we?

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1981. To me a daily occurrence of bombings, shootings and a them-and-us sectarianism seemed normal, quite simply because I never knew anything different. While from an academic point of view, there was more to the Northern Ireland conflict than simply Catholics versus Protestants, in essence, and with the nuances removed, this was the main component of the conflict which started in 1969. Is it therefore unfair to ask, given that Protestant and Catholic children by and large have been educated apart since 1921 in Northern Ireland, that the institutional condoning of segregation from the earliest, formative years could in fact store up division for the future, and that at its extreme could fuel a conflict that lasted for thirty years? With the benefit of hindsight, I believe it is.

Northern Ireland in many ways was a state that should have only existed for a short period of time. With two-thirds of Ireland achieving independence, a diminishing Unionist majority in the third part remained in the United Kingdom. (To think that the state will celebrate its hundredth birthday in just five years is nothing short of miraculous.) As a means of securing some degree of allegiance from their nationalist constituency, the Unionist ruling class of the 1920’s sought to allow the establishment of faith-based schools that would be largely controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, followed by a state-funded board with a strong representation of the Catholic clergy.

While in a normal society, faith-based education is not unusual, in a post-revolutionary, deeply divided society such as Northern Ireland, it was inevitable that children from Nationalist homes would almost all be sent by their parents to Catholic-maintained-schools, leaving the state schools—which should have been open to all—quickly occupied almost exclusively by Protestant children. To this day they are colloquially referred to as “Protestant Schools.” It is not unusual when a new school is built, for communities to develop around them; under such circumstances, children often end up being educated and living apart from their families. So what already began badly as Protestant schools and Catholic schools, quickly devolved into Protestant areas and Catholic areas, with children not only being educated apart but also living and socializing apart. All children soon become adults and the segregated lifestyles to which they had grown accustomed, manifested themselves in Catholic and Protestant bars, sports clubs and even shopping areas.

Certain professions were viewed upon as Protestant workplaces and others only safe for Catholics to work. Segregation soon became division, division became suspicion, suspicion became hatred and hatred in its extreme, became dehumanization, which resulted in a bloody conflict for almost thirty years. Of course, the history of the British and Irish goes back 400 years; so we can’t blame all the the ills of the Troubles in Ulster on segregated education. However, in the context of the the twentieth century conflict, I take the view that it played a prevalent role in the those Troubles, since people were conditioned—even programmed—to see the person going to the “other school” or living in “the area over the wall”’ with suspicion and therefore someone not worthy of trust. In today’s post-Good Friday Agreement climate, (some of ) Northern Ireland’s massive investment has been put into integrated education, but even though society has become more secular, asking the clergy to relinquish control of childrens’ education, is a formidable challenge.

So returning to where we started with earlier examples of challenged and defeated segregation, while we all would like to think had we been there, we would have been the Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela of our day, the facts of history unfortunately are stacked against us. And this is probably the biggest travesty of segregated education—in that we all risk becoming victims of the system.

In the course of my career I have had reason to work with those who were involved in terrorist activity, on both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict. While I utterly condemn their actions of the past, I frequently find myself struck that on a human level their hopes, desires, ambitions and problems are no different from mine. I believe those of us who do stand for social justice and integration have to challenge ourselves to help those who have been channeled in a way that has brought intolerable suffering to innocent families through violence; had they been educated in a different way almost certainly the outcome would have been different.

The writer, David McIlveen, has been a leader in Northern Irish politics and business for many years, serving from 2011–2016 in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the North Antrim constituency.